Let the games begin!

Every Olympics is a miniature world -- and leaves you feeling more hopeful about the human race than you were before.

Published August 5, 2008 11:15AM (EDT)

As you know unless you have renounced all contact with the outside world, the Olympics start this Friday in Beijing. I'm going to be blogging on them from San Francisco, joining fellow couch potatoes King Kaufman and Jennifer Sey, and John Krich, who will be in China. I'm looking forward to having a permanently hosted bar and grill conveniently located 10 feet away from my supine viewing position, but I'm pretty envious of John. I've covered three Olympics for Salon -- the 1998 winter games in Nagano, Japan, and the 2000 and 2004 summer games in Sydney, Australia, and Athens, Greece -- and once you've been to one, you tend to get addicted. I now understand those junkies you see at every games, obsessive souls completely covered with Olympics pins going back to 1960 Rome who will pull you aside to discourse for hours on the comparative merits of the shuttle buses in Atlanta and Torino.

The atmosphere at an Olympics is hard to describe. Those two-plus weeks are a crazy festival of excess -- too many sports, too much drama, too much nationalism, too much internationalism, too many people from too many countries, too much boorish cheering, too much great sportsmanship, too much athletic perfection, too many emotional highs and lows. For a journalist, add the excess of an insane work schedule, coming back from far-flung venues and trying to write 2,000-word stories before you collapse at 3 a.m. And while you're figuring out bus schedules and watching heats and buying tickets from scalpers and grabbing bites to eat, all the time there's a champagne buzz in the air, amazing things are being done that you're not even aware of and there are people from all over the world packed into one tiny place and there's always someone standing on a platform crying.

Maybe it's the compression of reality that really gets to you. When they light the Olympic flame at the end of the Opening Ceremonies, it's as if the lid has been put on a pressure cooker, and everything that happens for the next two weeks is supercharged. The colors are brighter, the victories and defeats deeper, because you know that flame won't burn forever. The Olympics remind you that life is supposed to feel like this -- intense and short and played for keeps.

I can't deny that watching the games on TV has some huge advantages over being there. Besides the aforementioned open-bar factor, there's infinitely more information. You learn much more about the athletes, you get expert commentary on the sports, you get to see every event, you don't have to deal with the always-maddening logistics. (There's nothing quite like taking an early-morning bus ride through a blizzard into the mountains outside Nagano, only to find out that the event has been canceled. Unless it's doing it twice.) And best of all, you have close-up views of everything, instead of sitting 300 yards away from the action, getting eyestrain from adjusting your binoculars every 30 seconds.

But there are a couple of major disadvantages, and they mostly have to do with that ineffable Olympics vibe. TV tries its best to capture it, and it does a pretty good job, but it ends up feeling a little canned, a little schmalzy. You feel like TV is pulling at your heartstrings, telling you what to think and feel. It's not your Olympics, it's TV's. It's a little like using a guidebook to appreciate a great city -- no matter how good the guidebook is, it imposes a filter. You have to fight to claim your own experience.

I have to say that for me, watching the Olympics on TV has never been quite the same since Jim McKay left. McKay, who died this June after a long and illustrious career, covered 12 Olympics for ABC. No disrespect to Bob Costas or any of the other fine Olympics announcers, many of whom are probably better informed and more articulate than McKay was. But something felt different when McKay departed. Maybe it was because we really only saw him doing the Olympics and the somehow Olympics-like "Wide World of Sports," so that he was associated with the games in a way no subsequent sportscaster has been. Or maybe it was his persona -- kind, thoroughly decent, even slightly tremulous. His grandfatherly humility meant he never got in the way of the events he was covering. Whatever, McKay wasthe Olympics for me, in the same way that that stately Olympic theme ("dum, dum, dee dum-dum-dum") is.

They are overflowing, the games, in a way that no nexus of cameras, no network coverage no matter how vast, can catch. A few examples out of the endless grab bag of Olympics memories: One hot afternoon in Athens, walking along the mountain bike course during the race, I came upon a rider who was sitting on the ground, next to a woman who had her arms around him. He was crying, his body convulsed with silent sobs. No one else was around. I never found out who he was or what his story was, but I didn't need to. When the hype, the hysteria, the drugs and the commercialism make me want to dismiss the whole thing as a colossal fraud, I think of that unknown athlete, sobbing as his dream died.

And I remember the other side, looking at the expressions on the faces of three different athletes as they stood on the medal platform in Sydney. These were not faces you see every day, or every year. They were faces from which everything inessential had been stripped. Faces that you might see on Greek statues.

For each Olympics is a miniature world, a vast novel. You never know what the story line will be, who will emerge as the hero or the villain or the world-class diva, what tragic events or ludicrous intervals will take place. You only know that you'll leave feeling more hopeful about the human race than you were before.

In that regard, I can't help feeling that the timing of this year's Olympics is propitious. For under the leadership of George W. Bush, America has basically said a giant "screw you" to the world. We have done whatever we wanted and run roughshod over everyone who got in the way, simply because we could. And the world, in response, has turned away from us. The goodwill and admiration the world once felt toward America has been squandered. Never has the Ugly American been so loathed.

But the Bush era is ending, and America has a chance to rejoin the world. Not as the "hyperpower" that smashes whomever and whatever it wants, but as a friendly, humble and confident neighbor of the other countries that inhabit this planet. We have a chance to embrace good sportsmanship at a global level. And it is fitting that this opportunity arrives at the same moment as the Olympics. For despite all their faults, the Olympics are a United Nations of the spirit. They're as close as we get on Earth to international brotherhood.

This may sound a bit grandiose. After all, the Olympics are only a glorified sporting event, and Olympians, the fabled "youth of the world" who are summoned at each Closing Ceremony to compete in four years, are just athletes. Moreover, for all their universalist aspirations, the games are profoundly nationalistic and tribal. Why should we remove the Olympics from the fallen world of politics? The modern games have been going on for more than a century, and during that time the youth of the world have spent much more time massacring each other under various flags than competing peacefully.

That's all true. And yet, the Olympics are inspiring, even if you don't care much about sports. And there's something about the Olympics that can, should and must transcend politics.

The Olympics are the greatest stage in the world for one particular type of human achievement: athletics. Athletics are not humankind's only achievement, but they are an important and primal one. For human beings are animals. We have bodies. And learning to master our bodies, training them, disciplining them, is literally written in our DNA. Yes, the urge to metaphorize sports can be taken much too far -- I'll probably be comparing the Ping-Pong tournament to the denouement of "The Brothers Karamazov" next week. But still, there is a thread that connects the great athlete with the great artist, the great thinker or the great human being. The ancient Greeks, who invented the Olympics, had a word for that unifying quality. They called it "arete": excellence. When you see the runners come around the first turn in the 400 meters, in all their glorious physical perfection, minds and wills honed down to one goal, how can you not rejoice at the sheer beauty of the sight -- and in all the different things our marvelous species can do?

At least symbolically, the Olympics honor athletes, and athletics, in a deeper and more appropriate way than any other sporting event does. America and most Western nations put their professional athletes on absurd pedestals, showering them with vast wealth and fame and even expecting them to be "role models" for children, a task most of them are singularly ill-equipped to perform. Of course, the Olympics are not immune to the forces of spectacular capitalism: Winning gold at the Olympics makes an athlete an instant celebrity, and often rich as well. And the ideal of Olympic amateurism has long been a joke. But nonetheless, the Olympics are a completely different kind of athletic event than any other. Winning at the Olympics is still its own reward, one that has much less to do with money than with glory.

As for politics, of course they will never go away. Politics hangs over every Olympics, but perhaps more over these games than any since the 1936 "Nazi Olympics" in Berlin. For these Olympics are being hosted by China, a nation whose political ambiguities are of an almost metaphysical order. You have only to shift your perspective slightly to regard the whole "Olympic spirit" thing as a pernicious and sentimental myth, a fig leaf covering up the truly important issues, whether those be the Chinese regime's human rights violations, its oppression of Tibet, its heavy-handed censorship, or any of its other myriad faults.

Those issues are real, and it would seem absurd to argue that a sporting event is more important than they are. It would be equally absurd to deny that the Chinese regime is using the games to burnish its image and advance its domestic and international agendas.

There's a push-back: Who's to say that hosting the Olympics won't change China for the better? But ultimately, politics isn't what the Olympics are about -- and that's OK. After all, a world in which you can never escape politics would be a horrifying one. We need a holiday from them, a time when we declare a truce.

All of these issues came together for me in a very personal, and weird, way when the Olympic torch relay came to San Francisco last spring.

San Francisco is a city that legendarily protests everything. There's a sizeable Tibetan community here, lots of progressives who are highly critical of China's government -- and also a huge, proud Chinese population. This added up to trouble. Everyone knew there were going to be big protests, and possibly major disturbances. Mayor Gavin Newsom had declared that he wanted to honor the torch but also allow protests. That was a reasonable policy, but the devil was in the logistics, and no one knew how he was going to handle the situation.

I had been in Sydney's Newtown in 2000 when the Olympic torch relay came through and protesters came out to give the torch the "brown eye," and I wasn't going to miss this. I wanted to celebrate the Olympic torch on its only stop in North America, but I also wanted to protest China's repression of Tibet. Both impulses seemed legitimate to me, and I didn't see anything contradictory about them.

I jumped on my mountain bike and headed down Nob Hill to downtown. The torch was supposed to go along the waterfront. When I got to the plaza near the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street, thousands of people, at least half of them protesters, were milling about in the streets. Word came down that there had been some ugly scenes near the ballpark, where the torch run had started. No one knew where the torch was or if the whole thing had been canceled. The cops didn't know either.

My investigative instincts sharpened by years of exacting journalistic training, I called home. My wife told me that someone on TV had said that the torch had been put on a bus that was now on Van Ness, across town, heading north. By completely abandoning the original plan and moving the whole procession a mile or so west, Mayor Newsom had thrown a curve ball at the protesters, who were in the wrong place and wouldn't be able to catch up unless they were on bicycles. But he had also thrown a curve ball at all the people who wanted to cheer on the torch. I had two strikes on me and the game hadn't even started.

I had to get across town fast. I could see the news helicopters hovering over the convoy. I guessed they must be around Sutter Street. They were obviously moving very slowly, so I figured it would take them 10 minutes or so to go the nine blocks north to Broadway, on the western side of Russian Hill. So I barreled on my bike through the Financial District, skirting the old Barbary Coast, up to the border of North Beach and Chinatown and into the Broadway Tunnel. As I whizzed along I saw a few protesters on bikes who had gotten wind of the new plan and were also zooming west by different routes. I cracked up as I realized this was the first and most dubious event of the games: The Middle-Aged, Camel-Smoking, Tequila-Guzzling, Mountain-Bike-Riding Journalist Versus the Torch!

My home-field advantage paid off. I had timed it perfectly. As I emerged from the tunnel, three blocks from my house, I saw the torch convoy heading down Van Ness ahead of me, motorcycle cops and other jogging security personnel surrounding a runner who was holding the torch aloft. There were only a few dozen people on the streets, and hardly any protesters. Newsom's plan had worked to perfection. It was just me, a few other bicyclists and whoever happened to be at Broadway and Van Ness at that moment.

The torch passed at its 12-minute-mile pace. The convoy was nearing the end of Van Ness. Which way was it going to go? It headed left on Bay. The traffic was congested there. I took a shortcut, cutting through the edge of Aquatic Park, up the steep hill to the Fort Mason green, and down to the waterfront on the other side, near where the ships had embarked for the Pacific Theater in World War II. A few other bikers were working up the hill and we laughed. "This is great!" another middle-aged guy wheezed as we neared the top.

I caught up with the convoy as it neared the Marina Green. By now quite a few protesters on bikes, including one young guy in a wacky Dr. Seuss-like knit hat and a little megaphone who was intoning something about the evils of Communism, had caught up. "Hands off Tibet!" the protesters yelled. A few people were waving American flags. Mostly people were just gawking.

I had already decided to protest and cheer. "Free Tibet!" I yelled feebly. "Go Olympics!" I was probably the only torch-procession viewer in the entire world to settle on this ridiculous compromise.

I kept riding along next to the torch as the runners, working in relays, carried it along the Marina Green in the direction of the Golden Gate Bridge. Finally, I gave up on the Tibet chant, got off my bike and applauded as the torch went past. I rode through the Presidio, up the hill to near the entrance to the bridge and waited with a small group of riders for the motorcade to appear, but the cagey Newsom had one last trick up his sleeve: at some point the torch motorcade somehow reversed course. I don't know if they did a "Godfather" U-turn on the Brooklyn Bridge number or what, but instead of the bridge they headed for the airport.

After that madcap afternoon, when I recalled how much fun I'd had chasing the torch, it struck me that maybe when you get down to it, fun is what the Olympics are all about. They are games, after all. And if most of the countries of the world can come together peacefully every four years to play beach volleyball, that can't be a bad thing.

Let the games begin!

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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